Blood cell breakthrough points to heart disease risk

17 November 2016        

Category: Research

Blood drip

The genetics of blood, variations in the number of cells and their characteristics can increase heart disease risk, according to an international collaborative study part-funded by the BHF, through your support.

The Cambridge-led studies at the Babraham Institute and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute are the largest and most comprehensive analysis to date of DNA and blood cell characteristics, and their relation to the risk of a wide variety of diseases.

The three studies were part of the EU-funded BLUEPRINT project and the IHEC consortium. They were published in the scientific journal Cell and the research also involved the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford and UK BioBank.

What did each study find?

One of the studies showed that genetic differences that cause people to have more young red blood cells also increase the risk they will have a heart attack. This discovery could lead to new treatments to reduce heart attack risk by targeting the effects of these genes.

A second study found 345 areas of our DNA where they could identify the likely causes underlying predisposition to diseases of the immune system, such as type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis.

In the third study, the researchers investigated how very small genetic differences in the so-called ‘junk DNA’, now recognised to be critically important for co-ordinating expression of families of genes, can increase risk of disease, including heart disease. The researchers have now identified the gene families that interact with these single changes and this knowledge could lead to new drugs, or repurposed drugs, that target these genes.

Research that is beating disease

Commenting on the BHF-funded research, Professor Jeremy Pearson, our Associate Medical Director, said:

"Our genes are critical to our health and there's still a wealth of information hidden in our genetic code. By taking advantage of a large scale international collaboration, involving the combined expertise of dozens of research groups, these unprecedented studies have uncovered potentially crucial knowledge for the development of new life saving treatments for heart disease and many other deadly conditions.

"Collaborations like this, which rely on funding from the public through charities and governments across the globe, are vital for analysing and understanding the secrets of our genetics. Research of this kind is helping us to beat disease and improve millions of lives."

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